The War in Afghanistan: Mending it not just Ending itMIT UniversityApril 13th, 2011
This is a remarkable time to be discussing foreign policy, because we are living through the most intensive period of global integration and interdependence the world has ever known.
Economic power is shifting to the East. The foreign policy consequences have hardly begun to be played out. Political power structures are challenged by new ways for individual citizens to communicate and connect. As we see from the epochal events in the Middle East, the action is exciting, but the result is unknown.
Today, however, I address a conflict that is old, tiring, expensive, brutal. I do so because I fear that the war in Afghanistan will once again become the ‘forgotten war’, as it did with such dangerous consequences in the years after 2002.
This is my case:
- that we the West have effectively announced a date, 2014, for the end of the war;
- but we have not put in place the strategy for political negotiations actually to end it;
- and the longer we wait the weaker our leverage and position will be;
- threatening both our substantive long term interests and the final narrative of the Afghan drama that began on 9/11;
- so we urgently need to set out our view of the end game, and a process to get there;
- and in this lecture I will set out my ideas about how this can be done.
The last few weeks have seen tentative signs of a welcome turn in policy. Secretary Clinton spoke in an important speech to the Asia Society in February of a “political surge”. The New Yorker reported that secret direct talks between the US and senior Taliban leaders had actually started . Nato Senior Civilian Representative Mark Sedwill said last month “the time is now right to take the risk and pursue the political agenda with the same energy we have brought to the military and civilian surges” . And the deeply impressive Brahimi-Pickering Task Force report concluded that ‘the best moment to start a political process toward reconciliation is now’ .
But these deviations from the otherwise relentless focus on military operations, allied and Afghan, need to be taken to a whole new level of urgency, coherence and effort if they are to get purchase on the situation on the ground. At the moment they are eddies in the tide; they need to become the tide. My purpose in this lecture is to rally maximum support behind that cause.
A year ago I spoke here at MIT and made the most explicit set of proposals from any foreign government for how to end the war in Afghanistan. I said that foreign troops and aid workers were making a difference, but I argued that military effort and development work would ultimately be for nought – “unsustainable” – if they were not directed towards the achievement of a political settlement, or series of political settlements, across the villages and valleys of Afghanistan.
The political settlement I advocated was first to be internal, involving all those willing to participate across the political spectrum. I said that while it was reasonable for there to be conditions for the conclusion of political talks, for example the need to keep Al Qaeda out, I argued that there should be no pre conditions for entry to the talks. I also said that for an internal political settlement to work, it needed to be supported by an external, ‘regional’, political settlement, involving all the neighbouring countries of Afghanistan committing themselves to support stability inside their war torn neighbour. I concluded that unless a political settlement was actively pursued, then it would become harder and harder to bring the war to an end.
One year on, I return to my case with more urgency and more detail. Because the case for a political strategy to match the military tactics being pursued with extraordinary bravery and patience by foreign troops and by Afghans, is stronger and more urgent than ever.
In early 2010, the war seemed endless, because no one was talking about how to end it. A year on, NATO has pledged to transfer security leadership to Afghan forces by 2014. Media shorthand has presented 2014 as a date for the end of the war. For example, the BBC report on the Lisbon NATO summit last year was simply: “Karzai and NATO agree Afghanistan exit strategy”.
In truth, some countries have been categorical that they will be out of Afghanistan completely, others like the US have kept options open, and still others, like the UK, have both said that they will definitely exit according to a fixed calendar (in the UK case 2015), and that conditions on the ground will be determinant, while also leaving unclear whether withdrawal is only about combat troops or includes training support .
The establishment of a timetable, however caveated, shared by ISAF and the Afghan government, has had a calming, even sussurating effect on the politics of the Afghan war – as if announcing an end date is the same as bringing the war to an end. General Petraeus’ recent hearings on Capitol Hill were sparsely attended and sparsely covered.
But while there has been a lot of discussion about dates, and some feuds about them, there has been next to no discussion about how a durable, secure exit for foreign troops is to be engineered in a way that does justice to the blood and treasure, Afghan and foreign, that has been spilled since 2001, or to the interests of Afghans and the West in the outcome.
The result is that today, our troops, and Afghan civilians, are in the front line of a strategy that has an end date but no clear end game. My contention is that the 2014 end date will prove to be a dangerous and damaging chimera unless there is an end game. And that end game must be negotiations, involving western powers led by the US, with all factions in the Afghan struggle.
The case is based on a simple proposition: no other approach will work. Look at the history of the last sixty years, from Malaya to Algeria to Vietnam to Iraq even to Northern Ireland. The theory and practice of counter-insurgency leads everyone to incant the cliché that there is no military solution; but it is a cliché because it is true; so it is high time that we stopped behaving as if there was a military solution and developed a political one.
Let me start with the current situation, which itself makes the case for a new approach.
The Current Situation: Stalemate or Disconnect?
We have been in Afghanistan longer than the Russians. Our aim is clear: that Afghanistan should never again be a launching pad for terrorism by Al Qaeda. And Al Qaeda are long gone into Pakistan, where they are taking heavy punishment.
But the weakness of the political negotiating track means that by themselves the four key elements of Afghan policy for the last ten years – on security, governance, development, and the role of the neighbouring states – cannot deliver on our core aim by 2014. The lack of a political framework within which all the people of Afghanistan find a place means that as our military and civilian forces seek to promote security or governance or economic development they are working with one hand tied behind their backs. In truth it often feels like both hands are tied.
The issue is not simply that the political arm of the Defence-Development-Diplomacy triad has been missing in action. There is a misunderstanding in that view. A political settlement is not one part of a multi-pronged strategy in a counter-insurgency; it is the overarching framework within which everything else fits and in the service of which everything else operates.
On security, smart analysts eschew bold claims because they know that absent of a political settlement the insurgency will endure and may grow.
ISAF troop numbers are now at a little over 130 000. General Petraeus told Congress last month that the “the momentum achieved by the Taliban since 2005 has been arrested in much of the country and reversed in a number of important areas”. He set out four parts of their military effort: a new, higher, tempo in killing or capturing Taliban leaders, the clearance of insurgents from areas in Helmand and Kandahar, the interdiction of the flow of weapons and fighters from Pakistan, and as he put it “arguably the most critical element”, the development of Afghan security forces. The goal is ‘transition’ to Afghan security leadership by 2014, starting with seven provinces covering 25% of the country including Mazar e Sharif where the UN suffered grievous loss of life on 1 April.
The numbers in the Afghan army are impressive – the latest figures are 150 000. But so are the problems.
In November last year the US Department of Defense concluded that the best Afghan units have neither the capacity nor the will to operate on their own . Meanwhile, the attrition rate in the Afghan army is about 30 per cent – in other words every year the army has to re-recruit a third of its numbers just to remain the same size. And although official figures show Pashtuns are represented in numbers roughly proportionate to their share in the population, the army’s commanding officers are predominantly Tajik and few of the army’s foot soldiers come from the Pashtun South and East, so that in key parts of the country it is seen as an occupying force.
It is true that where there are large numbers of coalition and Afghan troops, the insurgency can be suppressed. But it has a tendency to re-appear elsewhere. That is why ISAF records show 700 security incidents in the first week of January 2011, up from 400 for the same period in 2010 and 200 in 2009. The Wall Street Journal reported at the end of December 2010 that the UN security assessments used to inform decisions about staff safety showed an increase in insecurity across the country . Meanwhile ICRC said in December 2010 that security was worse than at any time in the last thirty years, and in March 2011 that there had been further ‘dramatic deterioration’ in the subsequent two months . General McChrystal’s goal of pacifying 40 of Afghanistan’s nearly 400 Districts by December 2010, and another 40 by the end of 2011, has been quietly dropped. Overall, ISAF estimates of Taliban numbers have been growing – to at least 35, 000 full time fighters.
But there is an even more fundamental reason why progress is “fragile and reversible” in the words of General Petraeus. It is that law and order in Afghanistan have never been delivered by the forces of a central state, never mind by foreigners. This is a country where tribal structures remain strong, weapons are widely available, and “insurgents” can melt into the local population or into a neighbouring district or province (or country). A national security force is never going to have a monopoly of force – and will not be able to police the country by 2014 absent a political settlement. The ANSF can underpin peace, but cannot deliver it .
The second plank of policy has been governance. The western security effort supports Afghanistan’s elected government and specifically its President, Hamid Karzai.
President Karzai has been a fixture of the last ten years. In that time 12 ISAF Commanders have come and gone, as have countless Ambassadors and Special Representatives. Over-reliance on the President is built into the Constitution, which is one of the most centralised in the world.
To his admirers Karzai is a man uniquely qualified to unite the Afghan people. He has the right history; he has charisma; he cares deeply about Afghanistan. At worst he is the weakest link in the campaign, unable to do the two jobs that the Constitution asks of him, Chief Executive and Chairman of his country. In this version his links to electoral fraud, corruption, cronyism and caprice have sapped the strength of the Afghan government and its western allies. To quote US Ambassador, and former NATO Commander, Karl Eikenberry, he is “an inadequate strategic partner”.
Whatever view you hold, in too many parts of the country the Taliban outcompete the government with their own ‘shadow government’, dispensing rough justice without the corruption of the formal structures.
The third plank of policy has been development, because Afghanistan remains one of the poorest countries in the world.
In the early years precious gains were made, significantly to the benefit of the Afghan people. The gains in terms of girls’ education have been outstanding. But they were outstanding within three or four years of the toppling of the Taliban.
Today, the Asian Development Bank reports that 42% of the Afghan people live on less than $1.25 a day. One in five children die before their 5th birthday; and short term aid is unevenly distributed across the country – some 70 per cent is spent in the two Southern provinces of Helmand and Kandahar – which stokes tensions.
The minerals sector is worth $1 trillion according to a recent estimate. But today the drugs trade delivers far more than the underdeveloped minerals sector. And bribery has been estimated at 25 per cent of GDP. The military cannot sort this out.
The fourth part of policy, conducted in a much more minor key, has been to prevent the neighbours of Afghanistan, especially Pakistan, from undermining the independence and stability of the country. In this progress has been very limited.
The neighbours were excluded from Bonn – on the grounds that Afghanistan had been treated as a chess board for too long. But everyone agrees they are key. Pakistan has been the focus. It is believed by many to be playing all sides. In the light of uncertainty about western intentions, that is hardly surprising. But it is also self defeating. A Turkish regional initiative in 2009/10 was blocked by Pakistani refusal to allow India to attend.
Without a political framework within the country, the neighbours are never going to become properly engaged outside the country. They protect their own interests. And the result is drift dangerous for all sides.
This story, across the four key parts of western policy, is the context in which to see the cry from an unnamed US Colonel interviewed by the New York Times in March . The Colonel talked of “the great disconnect” between tactical advances, often at great human cost, and strategic stalemate. Scholars at the Department of War Studies at King’s College, London, call it an “operational-strategic” disconnect .
The only way to overcome “the great disconnect” is an effective political process – so called ‘reconciliation’ - that deals into the political system all the players in Afghan’s future.
But discussion of a peace process has, unfortunately, been of recent vintage. I say unfortunately because Anand Gopal’s detailed study of the insurgency in Kandahar shows in compelling detail how the lack of a broad-based reconciliation process after 2001 drove former Taliban regime members who were minded to surrender and abstain from political life into Pakistan eventually to re-launch the insurgency .
The idea of reconciliation, and its cousin reintegration, became a significant part of the narrative in 2008 and 2009, as a new US Administration came into view, and as it took up the reins of office. President Obama showed his understanding of the idea in his early interventions, promising for example “a reconciliation process in every province”. But serious negotiations have not been launched. The Afghan High Peace Council, established at the London Conference of 2010, is an attempt to fill the gap but it will be hamstrung until the position of the Western powers is explained. That is what is now needed.
The Political Settlement: Rationale and Endgame
In his Pulitzer Prize–winning Ghost Wars Steve Coll quotes Peter Tomsen, the U.S. special envoy to the Afghan resistance, concluding in 1990 that the only model for governing Afghanistan was "the decades between 1919 and 1973 when Zahir Shah's weak but benign royal family governed from Kabul and a decentralized politics prevailed in the countryside, infused with Islamic faith and dominated by tribal or clan hierarchies."
The Russians concluded the same after their experience in the 1980s. Stephen Biddle and his colleagues, in an important Foreign Affairs essay “Defining Success in Afghanistan” - one of the few pieces of work to look at scenarios for the future governance of Afghanistan – also come to this conclusion . As they put it, centralised democracy or centralised dictatorship are unlikely; partition or anarchy are unacceptable; which leaves decentralised democracy or ‘internal mixed sovereignty’ (a regulated mix of democratic and undemocratic territories).
That decentralised and/or mixed sovereignty model will only be achieved by engaging all the ethnic groups, interests and fiefdoms in Afghanistan, and their backers outside in the broader region.
We can make an educated guess about what the Taliban want. Foreign troops out. Guantanamo detainees released. Scope for Sharia to be the law of the land. The removal of key individuals from the UN’s “1267 list” which contains those accused of terrorist crimes. Other players in the Afghan drama also have interests that they will defend. Tajiks, Uzbeks and Hazaras will want their interests and territory respected. The warlords will want free sway to make money.
The West needs a negotiating platform that does justice to our substantive interests in the future and the legacy of our actions in the recent past.
As Secretary Clinton set out in her Asia Society speech, the reason we are in Afghanistan militarily is non negotiable: it is to prevent it being used as an AQ base again. So the West needs long term security guarantees that Afghanistan will never again host Al Qaeda. I emphasise ‘host’ Al Qaeda because it was the sovereign cover for AQ organising that made Afghanistan dangerous in the first place.
That will require long term cooperation – beyond the funding that currently pays some $11 billion (rising to nearly $13 billion next year) for the Afghan security forces. (By way of comparison, the total Afghan tax and customs take is some $1 billion). A status of forces agreement could be the basis for that. It would be a public document regulating the terms of foreign engagement with the government of Afghanistan. It would be a negotiated document – as in the Iraqi case. It could set out how support and training would be provided, and safeguards offered. It could regulate the end of ISAF operations and, as the Brahimi/Pickering report suggests, pave the way for any UN troop presence in the future.
However, security guarantees are not our only contribution to a successful peace negotiation – not least as polling figures from Helmand and Kandahar provinces suggest large majorities of residents have not even heard of 9/11 (never mind the 7/7 bombings in London).
It is for Afghans to decide how the country is run. But the West needs explicitly to embrace the idea that all significant Afghan groups should be fully represented inside the political process. The Taliban are not going to disappear. They represent a highly conservative, minority strand of Islamic thought in Afghanistan.
It is right to insist that Afghanistan remain governed by constitutional norms and democratic institutions. No one group should be allowed to dominate. But that cannot mean that the current centralised constitutional set up is sacrosanct, and Afghanistan does have in the Loya Jirga process an established way to address this.
Outsiders can only offer commentary but the country strikes me as far better suited to a Federal and Parliamentary system than an Executive Presidential system of government. In a decentralised country can it make sense for the President personally to appoint all 34 Provincial Governors and 394 District Governors? Surely not. Afghan politics needs to be in sync with the identities, mores and traditions of Afghanistan’s tribes. These allegiances are as, if not more, defining than Afghan nationhood.
Two other issues will require a western view.
The Constitution specifies a two term limit for the President. That seems simple enough. But the election sagas of 2009 show the dangers of sleepwalking into constitutional terra incognita. The decision to extend the life of the government beyond its constitutional term, and install President Karzai as the head of an extended, interim administration, all but guaranteed that he would remain in office for a second term. That is not the way things should be done.
President Karzai will have an important place in Afghan hearts and on the Afghan scene in or out of office. But we should learn from President Mubarak and President Ben Ali what happens when individuals rather than institutions become the embodiment of our engagement with a nation. The constitutional norms should be respected.
The West also has an interest in the aspirations of the Afghan Constitution to equal treatment of its citizens. However I also know that social norms in Afghanistan are very different from our own; and that if we stand against a political settlement on the grounds that it is not socially progressive enough, we will make the mistake of trying to force Afghans towards social change at the barrel of a gun. The Afghan communists and their Soviet backers tried that and failed. The alternative is not abandonment. It is to establish as a red line that the voice of Afghan women and civil society must be heard in shaping the future of the country. Social and political change happens best when it comes from within.
Set out a unified and powerful western view on these issues – security, the constitution, human rights and governance – then all the other players will start to adjust their position against this benchmark. And the business of diplomacy can be given a chance – if there is a proper process to get negotiations going.
That is what I now turn to.
The Political Settlement: Making it Happen
First and most important, the UN Security Council needs to appoint and empower a UN Mediator to facilitate talks, with a clear UNSC mandate setting out principles of the endgame and an open invitation to all to participate. He or she should come from the Islamic world.
His job would be to canvass the views of all parties, and create the confidence for and commitment to a process for serious talks about the future of Afghanistan. He should for a start develop the idea of a safe place outside of Afghanistan – an Arabian Gulf State, Turkey, Germany or Japan - for all the sides to talk . This might then give way to talks within Afghanistan itself.
With all the talk about ‘Afghanisation’ you might ask: why have international involvement at all? The reality is that the Afghans cannot negotiate on behalf of the US about the presence of international forces. Promises made by the Afghan government to the Taliban must have visible international buy-in if they are to be credible. Equally, as a party to the conflict, the Afghan government cannot play the role I have envisioned for a UN mediator.
Negotiations would start in conditions of minimal trust, and maximum fear, on all sides, of humiliation. So there need to be a series of steps by which each side can assure their bona fides.
We have a fair idea of what the Taliban would recognise as such measures. An end to night raids. Safe passage to and from talks. Prisoner releases. So to those we should add suggestions of our own. Localised cease fires. Security for development projects, on the model of the polio vaccination campaigns that the Taliban have supported in the past. An end to intimidation of voters in elections. A Taliban declaration of disassociation from Al Qaeda. If they want more security from the might of western forces, then they need to stop the roadside bombs that kill and maim so many.
Third, the talks need the support of clear western civilian leadership in Kabul. Clarity of civilian command should match the clarity of military command – as part of the unified civilian/military command that counter insurgency doctrine mandates.
Currently, there is the Head of the UN office, responsible for coordinating the UN civilian effort; there is a Senior NATO Civilian Representative; an American Ambassador, plus four extra Ambassadors, overseeing a 1000-plus strong US civilian effort; a number of important national Ambassadors; plus an American replacement for the late Richard Holbrooke as Special Representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan, matched in forty other capitals.
All are seasoned and serious professionals. All interact with President Karzai and his government. But none has a dominant convening power to bring coherence to civilian strategy and effect, in the way Ambassador Ryan Crocker did in Iraq.
The UN is the apex of the international system. But despite the real excellence of Staffan de Mistura, and the unique understanding of the situation on the ground that comes from 23 offices around the country, the UN does not control the levers of power that are essential to bring coherence to the international effort.
We therefore need a bit of realpolitik. The international operation is above all an American operation. So the US needs to grip not just its own efforts, but the wider international effort. As the US appoints a new Ambassador this year, then this appointment needs the personality, instruction and length of mandate to convene and cohere the disparate strands of civilian effort between now and 2014.
The job description would be to be President Karzai’s principal interlocutor, working closely with him on the end-game strategy, liaising strongly with the Commander of ISAF to ensure that military strategy comes behind it, and creating a framework within which the political strength of the UN, and the development strengths of contributing nations, can bear full fruit.
Fourth, there needs to be a process to get the neighbours talking in a serious and structured way.
President Obama recognised the importance of this at the beginning of his Administration. In his speech announcing the conclusion of the Riedel review in March 2009 he proposed the creation of a regional ‘Contact Group’. Its role would be to engage the indispensable partners of an Afghan settlement – Pakistan, China, Russia, India, the central Asian republics and Iran. Today, the 40-plus group of countries with a Special Representative, mirroring the late Richard Holbrooke’s job, have been called the Contact Group. But this does not do the trick.
The new UN envoy should be responsible for regional engagement as well as internal talks. In the first instance these discussions with regional neighbours should be bilateral. The medium term goal should be a Council of Regional Stability that oversees a compact between its neighbours and Afghanistan.
Fifth, Pakistan, which deserves a lecture of its own, needs a long term relationship with the US and the European Union based on responsibility and respect. It cannot have privilege, but pressure alone will not get it to deliver.
The situation is not just chronically bad - because of disputed borders, massive inequality and fragile democratic institutions. It is acutely inflamed – with floods, terrorism, rampant food price inflation and most recently targeted assassinations of those who have publicly criticised the blasphemy laws as well as the Davis case.
Ahmed Rashid is surely right to say that either Pakistan needs an offer which meets some of its security concerns, or its assumption that it needs to dominate Afghanistan for security reasons needs to be changed. Both point to an up front agreement that the West will support its long term security in return for its help now in protecting ours, as part of a balanced approach to the whole region; the alternative is that we end up negotiating with the Taliban and Pakistan in a delayed endgame.
On coming to office President Obama told the New York Times in March 2009 “At the heart of a new Afghanistan policy is going to be a smarter Pakistan policy”. He then followed up with two letters to President Zardari, setting out his understanding of the strategic significance of a different relationship with Pakistan. The response from the Government and military of Pakistan was not as strong as it should have been. But that is a reason to re-table the ideas not retreat from them; and draw out from the Pakistanis greater clarity about their objectives, strategy and commitments.
These five issues do not cover everything. But unless they are done I cannot see the process getting off the ground.
The best way to set it in train would be through a new UN Security Council Resolution. It would set out as its driving rationale the imperatives of any political process, and how it could be made to happen, rather than as now relegating the idea of a political settlement to two paragraphs.
The timetable is urgent. Two international conferences – in Kabul in the summer and Bonn in December – currently have scant agenda or purpose. The agreement of a new approach would make them historic occasions.
Conclusion: Dangers Ahead
The US Department of Defense counter-insurgency manual embraces as fact “that political factors have primacy in COIN”. The proviso is that at the beginning of a COIN operation, “military actions may appear predominant as security forces conduct operations to secure the populace and kill or capture insurgents”.
We are well past the time to consider our military operations preliminary. I feel the urgency of properly embracing a new political offensive because the dangers if we don’t are clear and real.
The insurgency can spread, outstripping the ability of international and Afghan forces to check its growth. After all, some 45,000 foreign troops have been needed to check the advance of the Taliban in Helmand and Kandahar alone – and there are 32 other provinces in Afghanistan. The reports of the growth of the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan are evidence of the dangers .
Or the warlords can strengthen their grip. The efforts of the international community have been spent trying to find an alternative to Talibanisation and warlordism. But the gains at the expense of the Taliban have come at the price of increased warlord strength. Just ask the citizens of Kandahar.
Or, perhaps the worst case, inter-ethnic strife comes to look more and more like civil war. The prospect of international departure has already heightened the incentives for those outside the Pashtun heartlands of the Taliban to strengthen their own military positions and preparations.
Worst of all, we get caught in the paradox of military engagement that I saw myself in government: that when things go well there is a case for more troops to back a winning strategy, and when they go badly there is a case for more troops to turn things round.
In one of my first conversations with the late Richard Holbrooke he talked about a trend that he saw established towards the end of the Bush Administration. He called it ‘the militarisation of diplomacy’. It is the product of motivation not malice; patriotism not departmentalism. But it is not sensible.
Richard was unstinting in his admiration for the bravery, can-do and intelligence of the US military. But he also knew that its weakness was not knowing its own limits. It is good that military commanders study sociology as well as topography in the countries to which they are deployed. But it is not a substitute for the diplomatic statecraft on which peace settlements are based.
Richard Holbrooke knew from his experience, from Vietnam to the Balkans, that insurgencies and civil wars are never ended by force. There needs to be talking and not just fighting; and the talking needs to take place while the fighting is going on.
For that politicians need to give a lead. That is the way forward in Afghanistan – mending it not just ending it.